What does it sound like?:
The Steely Dan Band, has included several mainstays for the best part of two decades: Keith Carlock on drums, Freddie Washington bass, Jon Herington guitar, Jim Beard keyboards, Michael Leonhart, Jim Pugh, Walt Weiskopf and Roger Rosenberg horns, plus Carolyn and Jamie Leonhart and Catherine Russell on vocals. Connor Kennedy has stepped into Walter Becker’s guitar strap and La Tanya R. Hall has joined the vocal group. It was essentially this band that cooked up such a wonderful groove in the studio for Everything Must Go in 2003 on songs written with them in mind, sounding as magnificent as any Steely Dan combination of crack session musicians on any other album. Put Gary Katz back in the producer’s chair for the first time since 1980 and you are guaranteed excellent sound quality for both these live albums recorded on the same tour in 2019.
The jeopardy in any Steely Dan track is Donald Fagen’s voice. It is not the most refined of instruments: raspy, nasal and prone to being flat. The songs are carefully constructed so that it isn’t stretched too far and he delivers with the deadpan wink the lyrics often demand. Nevertheless, there are plenty of live recordings rendered almost unlistenable by its virtual collapse, barely a croak unable to hit notes normally within easy reach. It’s a relief to discover that after the intro to Black Cow, Fagen sounds barely a year older than when he first sang it in 1979. His voice is steady throughout and stands up to the task pretty well. Only Peg is a step too far, Michael McDonald sorely missed with no-one in the vocal group able to match him.
Steely Dan could randomly pick any eleven tracks from their songbook and still have entirely mouthwatering selections. There is a tendency on Northeastern Corridor to lean towards the more popular, older tracks. Herington and Kennedy pull off a series of guitar miracles, enlivening a pacy Bodhisattva and Reelin’ In The Years and Kid Charlemagne, whose “Yes, there’s gas in the car” is absent its usual exclamation mark. Rikki Don’t Lose That Number’s vibraphone is nicely off-kilter and the horns explode on an extended Aja, driven wild by Carlock’s colossal drumming. Hey Nineteen and Glamour Profession exude insouciant cool, the groove in the middle of the former more than making up for the missing Becker’s sardonic interjections. Things I Miss The Most is the only representative from later Dan and Any Major Dude Will Tell You is a slightly eyebrow-raising choice but both are performed to perfection. The finale is an instrumental of the Jazz torch ballad, A Man Ain’t Supposed To Cry. Collectively, these performances make Live: Northeastern Corridor the finest Steely Dan live album in existence, including bootlegs, but there is no getting away from the fact there is feeling of poignancy. The Steely Dan Band has a Walter Becker hole in it, however well they keep his spirit alive. At over an hour long on one CD or double vinyl, the listener is left wanting more.
The Northeast Corridor is a selection of tracks from different gigs but they played some Steely Dan albums in their entirety on the tour, including Donald Fagen’s debut solo album. The Nightfly is a nostalgic look to a past looking forward to the future of today, a today in 1982 when it was first released. It’s an album that was digitally recorded with each part effectively a separate overdub. It’s about as far from a band performing collectively as it is possible to get. It was also Fagen’s first project without Becker. As a result, both he and The Steely Dan Band seem more comfortable on this live recording from The Beacon Theatre, 2019. Fagen’s singing is relaxed with a hint of real intimacy, as befits a late night DJ reflecting on the world around him and the world ahead. The band revel in the swinging Jazz rhythms, playing these songs superbly, giving them a real sparkle. Keith Carlock shines with gate-free joy, adding a vibrancy and whip to an album that can be a little well-mannered. The girls step forward for lead vocals in an exquisite rendition of Maxine and the horns take every opportunity to soar. Again, the sharp-yet-fluid guitar work is a marvel. When you consider that Larry Carlton is the original template, that’s saying something. The Nightfly: Live is so good, it could be seen as a 21st Century vibrant remake of a 20th Century classic, the only possible gripe being that, maybe, the pace is a touch too bright on side two. It may well become many people’s go-to version. It also sports the coolest of the two sets of art work.
What does it all *mean*?
What a band! What a catalogue! Now enhanced by a couple of excellent live albums, the better and more coherent of the two being The Nightfly.
Goes well with…
A concert ticket. These releases reflect the balance of profitability of physical product versus gig. Purchasers of online tickets for their forthcoming Absolutely Normal tour are being offered a choice of CD for free.
Might suit people who like…
If you like Steely Dan, you’ll love these. If Steely Dan normally set your teeth on edge, try them. Perhaps, live you might find the performances more enjoyable.